by Jack Boyle (1881- 1928)
A MASSIVE safe, seemingly impregnable, was in the corner of the darkened office. Before it stood ‘Boston Blackie, chief of the “mob” of “peter” cracksmen. Gray-haired, stern-faced, laconic and efficient, Blackie had made his criminal profession an exact science. Given a strong box of certain dimensions, certain thickness and certain make, he knew to a fraction of a drop how much “soup,’—as the profession styles nitroglycerin,—would force the steel door from its hinges and drop it with the least possible noise on a bed of mattresses, placed by his assistants. In his eyes, a drop too much was a stupid blunder, a drop too little an inexcusable catastrophe. Snapping on an electric torch he carefully examined the plaster of soap with which he had made air-tight the tin; crack between the door and the safe walls. In the center of the door at the top fashioned a soap cup capable of holding a couple of tablespoonfuls of liquid. At the inner and lower edge of this cup a tiny orifice, unsoaped, in the crack of the door, made room for the explosive to trickle down behind it. Satisfied with his inspection, the chief turned to one of the two men behind him. “Gimme the ‘soup,” Cushions.”
“THE youngster called “Cushions” produced a bottle with hands that were not quite steady. Uncorking it, the cracks man poured a couple of teaspoonfuls into a physician’s measuring glass, then, examining his measure with infinite care, he added a couple of drops and was satisfied. Returning the bottle to the youth, he poured the heavy fluid into the soap cup. A few drops spilled on the cement floor by a shaky hand would have ended the careers of the trio. But Blackie’s hands didn’t shake. Taking a fulminating cap from his pocket, he placed it firmly against the crack through which the explosive had flowed into the safe and crushed the soap cup over it to hold it in place. A six-inch fuse dangled from the cap.
” K. Y. , give Jimmy the signal,” was the next command. The third man who, until now, had neither spoken nor moved, slipped silently away toward the front doors of the store. A moment later a peculiar tapping, scraping sound made with the backs of the finger nails was heard on the glass. It was the opium-smoker’s “rap,’—a signal familiar the country over to users of the drug. In answer, from across the street came a few whistled bars from a popular song. “Everything’s O. K.” reported K. Y., noiselessly re-entering the office. In his absence Blackie and his helper had covered the entire safe with heavy blankets, filched from the store’s shelves.
“Get the mattress,” ordered Blackie. The two men dragged in a big double mattress and laid it on the floor in front of the safe door, “A little to the right and a couple of inches farther back,” instructed the “mob” leader, measuring the door with his eve.
“Get down behind that counter out there and lie close to the floor. Here she goes,” he said, striking a match and igniting the fuse. Then, with the same match, he relighted the cigarette between his lips and, without any haste, slipped through the doorway and dropped down d the counter where his pals laying. There was a hissing, sputtering sound as the fuse burned, then a smothered detonation that rattled the store windows, followed by a puff of smoke, and the great outer door of the safe, torn from its place by the irresistible power behind it, sagged outward and dropped squarely in the center of the mattress, still swathed in the torn folds of the blankets.
In a second Blackie was at the inner door of the safe, testing the combination with fingers of experience. Taking a light sledge from among the tools laid out ready on the floor he laid it flat against the door near the top and brought it down with a sharp tap on the combination. It dropped, cut off as cleanly as by a knife. Then with a steel punch he forced the broken shank back into the lock, using a leather-covered hammer to deaden the noise. A few turns of the knob and the broken tumblers and disks slipped apart. A moment’s prying and the wrecked door swung open. The safe was cracked. Unhurried and without excitement, but quickly, Boston Blackie forced drawer after drawer, tossing out flat packages of bills to the men behind him, and finally emerging himself with a coin sack marked “Gold”. This he dropped into a concealed pocket inside the lining of his overcoat.
“That’s all. Let’s go, boys,” he said. The tools were left on the office floor. Sledges and hammers, drills and a few punches, are cheaply bought at midday. They are hard to explain away, however, if found on a man in the vicinity of a wrecked safe at three o’clock in the morning.
DIAGONALLY across the street from the store they had just left, an automobile engine began to cough. Crossing to the machine, in which sat a driver, muffled and goggled, Blackie and his companions climbed into the tonneau and the car shot away into the night. A half hour later the quartet lay on their hips in a circle, an opium “layout” in their midst, while the erstwhile chauffeur, called “Jimmy the Joke,” rapidly toasted the pungently sweetish brown pills, as the pipe passed round and round the circle from lip to lip. There was no discussion of the “job” they had just turned, no excitement or exultation over its success. It was all a part of the day’s work with them and, anyway, opium smokers in the throes of a “habit” have no desire for speech. Boston Blackie, whose piercing black eyes and New England birthplace had won him his nickname, lay in the position of precedence to the left of the “cook.” Next came K. Y. Lewes, second in command, whose drawling Southern accent betrayed his Kentucky boyhood. Pillowed on him was the “Cushions” Kid, so called because once when the rest piled into a freight car to make a short trip he paid his last five-dollar bill for a railway ticket—and went hungry for twenty-four hours in consequence.” And, lastly, there was “Jimmy the Joke” who had been christened James Tener. Long ears before, he had done a “jolt” in a Western penitentiary. The judge sentenced him to ten years.
“Is that meant as a joke, Your Honor?” queried the prisoner blandly.
“A joke!” ejaculated the old judge.
“Yes, Your Honor,” replied the prospective convict. “Didn’t I just understand you to say a ‘tener’ for Tener?”
AN HOUR passed. Each of the four was beginning to feel the physical relaxation and mental exhilaration that binds its victims to opium.
A knock—the “fiend’s rap”—sounded on the door.
“Come in,” called Blackie.
The owner of the “joint” in which they lay entered—a haggard-faced skeleton of a man called “Turkey-neck” Martin.
“Good evening, Blackie,” he commenced, after carefully closing the door. “Hello, boys! How’s every little thing? The Joke’s ‘cheffing,” as usual, eh? Some cook, you are, Jimmy, old boy. Need any more ‘hop’ yet, Blackie?”
“That’s not what you butted in here for, What is it you’ve got to say?” This from Blackie. ‘The human wreck half-cowered under the reprimand.
“Well, it’s this way, fellows—not that it’s really any of my business,” he began hesitatingly, “but knowing what a ‘right’ crowd you fellows are, and how you put up the dough for that Denver Kid’s bonds, and—”
“Aw, cut that stuff and get down to what you’re trying to say,” growled Blackie.
“It’s this way,” began Turkey-neck again, “The pinch come off yesterday. They’ve got him right, and it’s a trip over the bay to the Big House if it aint squared. l’i’e’s broke, and the boys are taking up a purse.”
“Who’s pinched, you gabbling fool ” interrupted Blackie.
“Why, ‘Mitt-and-a-half’ Kelly. He—”
“What?” cried Blackie raising himself on his elbow and glaring at the flustrated joint keeper with more excitement than any of his listeners had ever seen him show. “You come to me from that white-livered rat! Why, he just misses being a copper. I don’t put it past him to ‘stool’ at that. We’re a different breed here from that skunk. Tell him fi;)rn me that he’s safer behind the bars than—” But the joint keeper had slipped from the room and Blackie choked Ezck the flow of his indignation. His three friends waited in silence for the explanation they knew would come.
BLACKIE took the next pill in a “long-draw,” inhaling the smoke until his lungs seemed bursting, then exhaling slowly in short puffs. “I’m going to tell you the story, boys, of a fellow who had principles and paid for them, same as we all must pay for anything that’s worth while having,” he commenced. “The man I mean is “Three-Fingered Mac.”
“Poor old Mac! I remember when he got his ‘jolt,’” chimed in Jimmy.
“He did one before that,” went on Blackie. It was characteristic of him that, having smoked, he dropped the aror of the Joint bit by bit, and reverted to the clean speech of his college days.
“Fifteen years is what they gave him. It was a bank safe job. Fifteen years! That’s nine years, five months solid, allowing for good conduct ‘copper.’ judge can say fifteen in a fraction of a second, but it’s a long, long stretch when you have to do it—one day at a time.
“Mac had a woman, loyal and true as steel, who did his jolt too, on the outside— one day at a time. That’s the worst of this rotten business. Our women have to do our time the same as we do, if they’re worth while, which Mac’s wife was. Almost all the money he’d laid away went to his ‘mouth-pieces” (lawyers) at the trial, so she opened a little millinery shop and took care of herself and the kid while Mac was ‘buried.” She wrote every week and never missed a visiting day in all of those long years. Well, at last he got his time in and they turned him out at the gate to start life with a five-dollar gold piece and a ‘con’ suit. I ran across them on the train to the city—Mac, his wife, and a long-legged boy who had been an infant when Mac went across. I was looking for a man to fill in my ‘mob’ just then, and felt him out. He shook his head. ““Blackie,” he said, ‘I’m done, I haven’t lost my nerve and you know I’ve always been “right.” But look at that little woman there. She’s waited and worked for me for nine years and five months. She’s saved enough to buy us a little chicken ranch up Petaluma way, and I’m going in for the simple life, with her and the boy to hold me straight when I get restless for the old, exciting days.’
“I SHOOK hands with him and told him how lucky he was to have a woman like that,” continued Blackie. “Then he asked me where Mitt-and-a-half Kelly was living. He had a message for him from a pal who was doing twenty up above.
“He’s living at the Palm, same house with me,’” I said, ‘but he’s under cover. You and the folks come on to a show with me and I’ll take you up to see him afterward.”
“‘Not tonight,’ he said. ‘Im going to spend this night at home with them, nodding over his shoulder at his wife and son. I’ll meet you to-morrow might, though, for we leave for the country the next morning.”
“We went to the Orpheum the next night and Mac missed half the show explaining to me how much money could be made with chickens. Afterward, we went up to the Palm, looking for Kelly. He was out. I asked Mac down to my room, but he refused. He knew I was due to smoke and didn’t want to tempt himself with even the smell of ‘hop,” he said. So I let him into Kelly’s room with a passkey, and went down-stairs to my own layout. It was midnight then.
“It couldn’t have been over half an hour, for I was still smoking off my first card, when I heard a copper’s tread on the stairs. Then two more of them. I planted the layout and lamped out through the transom. I could see them at the head of the stairs, hammering on Kelly’s door, and every man had his gun out. Mac opened the door, and in less time than it takes me to tell it they had three ‘rods’ at his head and the cuffs on his wrists. Then, after searching the room, they took him away, along with a bundle of clothes they had found.
“I stepped down from the transom laughing to myself. I knew the coppers were working a ‘bum rap’, for Mac had been with me all night. There wasn’t a doubt in my mind that they would have to turn him loose in the morning. When they had gone, I slipped down-stairs, for I wasn’t any too eager to interview the chief myself just then. All the way down on the stairs there was a plain trail of blood, and in the doorway a big splotch where a man had stood while he used his latchkey. I knew then that somebody had got in bad and had been hurt.
“I SPENT the rest of the night at the joint and got the first editions of the papers. I found what I was looking for plastered all over the first page. A ‘peter’ mob had been surprised at work on a safe out on the south side by a ‘harness bull’ (uniformed policeman) just as the midnight watch was changing. “There was a lot of shooting. The copper got his and died on the operating table at the hospital. One of the mob, too, was hurt, the paper said, for a trail of blood led up the street in the direction they
had gone. A later edition announced the capture of Three-Fingered Mac, a desperate criminal just released from the penitentiary. In his room at the Palm Hotel he was caught stripping off his blood-soaked clothing. A policeman, noticing blood on the sidewalk, had traced it to the hotel and up the stairs to Mac’s room. In the room they found a bloody handkerchief and a .44 Colts with every shell exploded. The prisoner had no visible wound except a gash on his head, probably made by a night-stick. The blood on his clothing, it was explained, came from the wounds of the dead policeman with whom the prisoner had a hand-to-hand struggle as he fled. I knew then that poor old Mac wasn’t going to start for that chicken ranch the next day. I went down-town and sent a lawyer up to him, and then went out myself to break the news to that little woman of his. She hadn’t been to bed, and was waiting for him. It was the toughest job I ever tried, to hand her that paper.
“He’s innocent as you are, ma’am,” I said. “He was with me from eight o’clock until midnight, and this job was done before twelve.”
”I TOOK her up to the lawyer’s office, and we waited all day for him to get to Mac. When the mouth-piece finally came in he had a worried frown and I could see more trouble ahead. ““You’ve given me a crazy man for a client,” he said, irritably. “He swears he is innocent, but admits he knows the guilty man. Says this mysterious friend came in with a bullet wound in the arm and that he dressed and bandaged the hurt. Then the fellow changed clothes, threw his revolver in the bureau drawer and skipped out, knowing the police would follow the trail of blood he left behind. While Mac was washing the blood off his hands, the coppers came battering at the door. He opened it and «Bull” Dunnigan rapped him on the head with his stick, cutting a long gash in the scalp. Then he was pinched. Not a bad yarn that, true or not. But right there’ he “crabs” it all, He absolutely refuses to tell who this other man is. Says he’ll take a jolt rather than turn informer. Can you beat that for idiocy? He says he has an alibi—that he was at the theater with a friend and didn’t leave him between eight and midnight.”
“That’s true. I’m that friend,” I interrupted. “We went to the theater, sat through the whole performance— here are our seat checks —and then went up to the hotel. It was just midnight when Mac went upstairs to wait for his friend. I know he couldn’t have had a hand in that job.”
“Your testimony will help, Blackie”, the lawyer went on after a moment’s thought; “but you know you’re not exactly a witness that will carry weight with a jury. Mac says there is a bullet hole in the right sleeve of the coat belonging to his friend. Mac’s coat is bloody, but there is no hole in the cloth and no wound in his arm. If I had that coat, I’d acquit him. But listen to this: Mac says Bull Dunnigan has been trying to force him to betray this friend of his He told the detectives the same story he told me. Dunnigan came out flatly and told him he believed he was telling the truth, but that somebody would have to swing for killing that policeman. “It is either you or your friend, Take your choice,” said Dunnigan. “You’ll come through or you’ll swing, and I don’t give a finger-snap whether you are innocent or guilty. I’ll get you. And Mac swear he’ll never “stool”. Can you beat it?’
“Mac’s woman had been leaning forward looking at the lawyer with a light in her eyes that would asbestos. She had aged ten years since I saw them on the boat two days before, all so happy and carefree “My, poor boy, my poor,” she cried. I can’t dose Dim again, I won’t—not when I know he isn’t guilty. Oh, Mr. S–, save him some way, save him from himself. You’ll have to do it all yourself, for Mac won’t help vou. He’ll never “snitch” on a friend. I know him. I can’t see him go buck there to prison. Only yesterday I was so happy, so hopeful, and now,—oh, it drives me mad!”
THEN she broke down and the tears came. I was glad. Anything is better than the terrible dry-eyed grief of a woman who sees her man being torn from her—and unjustly at that. “She told the lawyer all their plans about the chicken ranch, and he perked up a bit. He told her not to worry and finally sent her home, heartened up some because he assured her that her testimony would help more than anything that had turned up. When she had gone, he turned to me.
“Is that yarn true?’ he asked. “Absolutely, every word of it.”
“If I could get that coat with bullet hole in it, I’d acquit him. But, Blackie, will wil we ever see that coat?”
He looked at me questioningly.
“Not if those framing coppers are wise that it will acquit Mac. Dunnigan will railroad him for this as sure as eggs make omelets, unless he snitches, and he won’t,” I replied.
A MONTH later they put Mac on trail. All through that month I had been expecting Kelly to show up and do something. I thought he’d get his mob. together and stick up the patrol wagon taking Mac to and from the county jail to curt. But he didn’t show. The trial wasn’t long. The papers all took it for granted that Mac was guilty, and the jurors admitted reading about the case but declared that they had no ‘fixed” opinions and could give him a fair trial. That word “fixed” muse save many a juror’s conscience, if any of ’em have any.
“The coppers testified about the trail of blood that they had traced almost from the scene of the crime to the room where they found Mac washing his bloody hands and wiping blood spots from his clothes. Then they produced the revolver and the empty shells and proved that the policeman was killed with that sized gun and that it smelled of fresh powder when found in the room. Then Dunnigan filled in all the gaps in the chain of evidence. First he told what a desperate criminal Mac had been and produced his photograph in stripes taken at the penitentiary. The judge refused to permit this in evidence then, but the jury had all seen it before it was ruled out. Then he swore that Mac had a scalp wound received before he was arrested, presumably, from intimations by the prosecution, in the dearh struggle with the murdered policeman. Then Dunnigan settled Mac’s chances with the foulest perjury I ever heard. He told how he reached the dying policeman’s cot in the hospital ten minutes before he died.
“Did he know who shot him? asked the prosecutor.
“He didn’t know him by name, answered the detective slowly, turning to the jury would be sure to get every word, “but he said the man was a big fellow with dark clothes, and he said also that two fingers were missing on bis gun hand and chat he had a scar from his eve to his chin on the right side of his face.”
THERE sat Mac in full view of the jury with his mutilated hand in plain sight and the scar on his face turning fiery red as he heard the lie that damned him for life. 1 knew it was all off then. The lawyer did his best, but we were beaten before we started to put a defense in. I told my story—the exact truth—bu they sprung my record on me, and I knew by their looks that the jury wasn’t even paying attention to me and my story. Mac’s woman made a great witness. I tell you, boys, no one who heard her tell about their plans for that chicken ranch, and how her husband had determined to live square, could help believing her. There was something that choked up my throat in the desperation with which she fought every step of the way for her man. The jury seemed impressed for a few moments, but it didn’t last until they commenced balloting.
“The landlady of the Palm was called to prove that Mac did not rent or own the room where he was caught. As ill luck would have it, Kelly had go: me to rent the room for him, he being under cover, and old Mother McGunn showed my name on the books and swore she didn’t know whether one or twenty men visited the room, as long as the rent was paid. We demanded the coat with the bullet hole in it and made an awful howl when the police denied even seeing it, but the jury set it all down as a fake of ours.
“Mac made a good witness. He told the truth in a straightforward manner— that is, all but Kelly’s name. On cross-examination the district attorney asked just one question: “Who was this man you say came in wounded just before your arrest?”
“Every drop of blood seemed to leave Mac’s face. He started to speak, stopped, looked over at his wife in whose eyes there was the look of Death itself. He hesitated a second, then turned to the jury:
“I refuse to answer,” he said. “Thank God it isn’t my business to be a copper like chat lying perjurer there,” pointing at Dunnigan.
“I’ve never betrayed a friend or sent a man to jail yet, and I never will!”
Mac was convicted anyway, but that refusal settled every doubt. The jury was out just long enough to get a dinner at the expense of the county, and then brought in a verdict of guilty and fixed the penalty at life imprisonment. A couple of them objected to hanging. As they took Mac back to jail, Dunnigan passed by him.
“Just remember while you’re doing another man’s time,” he whispered, “that I said I’d get you, and I did”
Mac leaped at him and would have brained him with the handcuffs if the deputy sheriffs hadn’t overpowered him. The papers next day called it “a desperate murderer’s attempt to escape.””
A HALF-DOZEN times the pipe went round the complete circle before other word was spoken.
“What did the woman do?” asked Cushions at last.
“There are some things too painful for even hardened crooks like us, and sometimes those same things also are too fine and sacred for a bunch like this to talk over in a place like this. That little woman and her dead hopes and plans for that ranch are among them,” answered Blackie slowly.
“And now, boys, you know why I said what I did about Mitt-and-a-half Kelly. Mac is doing ‘all of it’ (life imprisonment) because he was too right to snitch even on a skunk. Kelly didn’t do a thing for him—not even as much as sending dough for his defense. Cushions, my boy, when your turn comes to do time, and it will if you stick by hop and us, remember Mac who had principle and paid for it like a man. What a price, though, when you think of that wife and boy of his!” Jimmy the Joke toasted the last pill of hop and handed the pipe to Blackie. Lewes, pulling back the heavy curtains, let in a ray of bright morning sunshine. They all bundled into their overcoats.
“I’m going,” said Blackie. “You know the meet for us to-night. Eight o’clock sharp. You three go out one at a time five minutes apart. No bunching up on the street. And Lewes, you size up that ‘hock’ shop job this afternoon. Press the button for Turkey-neck and his bill.”
The joint keeper came shuffling in.
“There’s an extry just out,” he began in his quavering voice. “Another swell job’s come off. That peter mob that has been doing the whole of this rough stuff around town got another one last night—it’s the Boston Department Store this time.”
“Good for them,” said Blackie without interest. “About that dough to spring Kelly from jail. We—” “Let it go; let it go,” Turkey-neck broke in. “The moment you refused the money—”
“Refused the money!” cried Blackie turning on the astounded joint keeper like a flash. ““Refused nothing! I said Mitt Kelly is a low-lived skunk who ought to be shot on sight. But I didn’t say I wouldn’t chip in dough to help him beat the Big House. I’d give up my last five-case note to keep the fleas on a yellow dog from doing time. We’ll put in fifty dollars. If you don’t get enough, say 50 to-night and I’ll make up the rest. But tell him from me, that he has the black curse of the snitch on him now and forever. Hell never have a day’s luck while he lives, and he’ll die in the gutter like the cur he is.* So long, fellows.”
“The man described here as Mitt-and-a-half Kelly was found shot to death in a doorway near an opium joint in Seattle some six months after the date of the incidents in this story. No trace of his murderer was ever found.”